Public health centres and Health Link Alberta phone lines were slammed Wednesday as worried parents rushed to book measles immunization appointments for their infants.

After declaring a measles outbreak in central Alberta Tuesday, Alberta Health Services opened immunization to children as young as six months. The vaccine is usually given after one year. 

AHS is encouraging parents to have their babies immunized as soon as possible, spurring many to contact Health Link.

“I'm not too, too worried, but worried enough that I made an appointment,” said mother Alexis Klimaszewski, who spent an hour on hold to schedule an appointment for her eight-month-old daughter.

However, Dr. Robert Moriartey, the president-elect of the Canadian Paediatric Society, said parents are right to be concerned.

"Children get very sick – very, very high fevers for a prolonged period of time, very deep harsh coughs. They really feel washed out, even worse than influenza,” he said. “Many will get pneumonia, many will get severe croup, a very small percentage will get inflammation of the brain or inflammation of the heart which can be life threatening."

Newborns generally receive some antibody protection against the virus from their mothers, Moriartey said. However, that protection generally lasts only for six to ten months.

Asked about parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, Moriartey made his opinion clear.

"All I can tell them is, having been a father of three children and a grandfather and having seen measles throughout my practice, I have no doubt that I would immunize all my children or my grandchildren again at a moment's notice."  

"Practice and research and clinical statistics suggest that immunization is the best protection that we can give our children. There's no doubt it has saved hundreds of thousands of lives of children in third-world populations and it has saved many lives in developed countries."  

A wake up call

Experts say the outbreak and ensuing scramble for infant immunizations is a wake up call for those who thought measles has stopped being a threat.

“We've become complacent over the past decade or so with measles, now it has come back into the population and our vaccine rates have dropped and we're reaping the consequences of that,” said Glen Armstrong, a microbiologist at the University of Calgary.

Armstrong said vaccination rates in Alberta have dropped below 90 per cent.

“Given the current rate of vaccination in Alberta, there's probably about roughly 100,000 people in Alberta that are potentially susceptible to this virus.”

"I think the outbreak is still relatively small but it has potential to just grow like wildfire," agreed Moriartey.

Anyone hoping to schedule an immunization appointment has been advised to call Health Link Alberta.

Dr. Marcia Johnson with AHS says additional staff have been added to deal with the increase in calls from parents.

As of Wednesday morning, Johnson said immunization appointments were still available, starting on Saturday. She said some clinics are extending their hours in evenings and weekends to help deal with demands.

Unlike Calgary, there are no plans to open special clinics in Edmonton for providing the measles vaccine.